I breezed through this book which depicts a love triangle of sorts, a ‘marriage plot’ in the tradition of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters. I thought I’d have to understand what a marriage plot is but it turns out I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to get it. Even if I am not well read enough to make great literary comparisons, Eugenides is forthright about his plot’s intentions.
It’s right there in the title and in the romantic foibles of his English major heroine, Madeleine, who, upon her graduation from Brown University, navigates a tumultuous relationship with Leonard, a manic depressive, while she studies the marriage plots of Victorian literature and tries to understand love through the gaze of semiotics (a literary movement I am (quite happy to remain) unaware of.) There’s a strained platonic relationship with Mitchell, a religious studies major travelling through India in search of the right kind of enlightenment. And, with that, you have a not-quite-contemporary (it takes place in 1982) but contemporary enough take on courtship.
The novel weaves these three character’s narratives through graduation day at Brown and the year of physical and emotional meandering that follows. I thought that it depicted the hyper-awareness and the confusion of post-graduation really well. The what-do-I-do-now syndrome, now that I’m forced out of the insulated world of academia, now that I actually have to live my life instead of learn how I might want to maybe live it someday.
I like that it took on this time in a person’s life and I’m not ashamed to admit that I understood the whine of the privileged, understood characters whose parents provide a financial and emotional safety net when massive and minor mistakes are made, and whose biggest first world problem is where to sleep on a backpacking trip in Paris when their travel companion decides to hook up in the same room.
What struck me most is the detachment the characters feel while making romantic attachments, almost as if it is mandatory to be in love or lust, that we are obligated to fall in love with the idea of a person rather than the person him or herself. I don’t know how much that’s changed throughout the years, the notion that finding love is less a search than it is a series of must-haves versus have-nots. And that the love we do find, if it’s deemed ‘true’ enough, is something we must endure in spite of itself simply because we believe we’ve found it.
In the end (and this is not a spoiler) Madeleine has her choices made for her. While I was left to believe that she had been given what she desired all along, it was eye-opening to think that, while we’re in the middle of romantic entanglement, we may completely misunderstand what we have because we’ve convinced ourselves we’ve serendipitously been given what we should want.